Legacy is a popular word in NBA circles this time of year. As the NBA Finals approach and after the number of challengers has been reduced, ring counts and historical revisions fill the time now devoid of games and distractions.
Ultimately, this filling of time pits Michael Jordan’s disciples against LeBron James’ followers. The former, as Yago Colàs observes in his book Ball Don’t Lie: Myth, Genealogy, and Invention in the Cultures of Basketball are wedded to the idea that history is over, and while most of their claims are, as apocryphal, easy to defend, they are, at times, as obnoxious as the ’72 Dolphins popping champagne corks.
More importantly, however, their ossified narrative is much more difficult to defend against the onslaught of LeBron James than it was against Kobe Bryant. Bryant as a clone was always destined to bow in deference to the archetype, and his supporters are to be easily vilified as cultish clowns. James’ following, however, is modern in a millennial sort of way, having come to value stats beyond scoring binges and ring counts. Perhaps inspired by having witnessed Bryant stall out at five rings, they have attempted to shift the grounds of the argument.
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So, instead of playing by Jordan’s rules, they beat against the gates with a 6-foot-8, 250 pound battering ram and words like “well-roundedness.” There is a certain level of nostalgia in these acts. After all, they are attempting to turn back the clock to a time of magic and birds and giants, when a person could believe in something other than Jordan’s supremacy. They are conservative in their progressive attempts.
And yet, what they hold to most is their own most important number. With each year, they, too, notch another Finals appearance to LeBron’s bedpost. They know that number now tallies two more than Jordan’s. Of course, the Church of Jordan counters with, count the rings, though, which is also a smug way of suggesting nothing else matters. Bill Russell and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar yawn from retirement.
Like those other two Hall of Famers, Jordan is not a center, and unlike Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, he did not play with great centers. Thus, at least in the first three-peat, watching Jordan win rings felt a bit like watching someone steal, and yet Jordan never played a great center in the NBA Finals. His toppling of giants always occurred in the Eastern Conference-side of the bracket. He climbed the beanstalk, but there was never an ogre guarding the harp.
That is not to say Jordan’s Bulls did not face strong competition in the Finals. They did. But the idea that Jordan faced every great player of his generation face-to-face simply isn’t true, and yet his most ardent fans speak of Chicago’s playoff runs as if these moments had occurred. I do not mean any of this as some sort of knock against Jordan or his Bulls. They won the era, running away even. But ‘what ifs’ remain. What would have happened if the Chicago Bulls and Houston Rockets had played in either the 1994 or 1995 Finals? What if Jordan hadn’t retired after 1998? What would a San Antonio versus Chicago series have looked like? Again, these questions do not turn an argument. They simply erode certainty.
On the other hand, LeBron James has been to the land of giants, having faced the San Antonio Spurs three times in the Finals. And then there is that team ruling in place of dinosaurs, the Golden State Warriors, who he will see for a third time this June. Thing is, James didn’t even climb a bean stalk so much as ride an escalator, which can cause individuals to either cast him a mighty floor general or as a playground bully.
Thus, the only real conclusion to draw when comparing these eras is the NBA map is always changing. The current Eastern Conference is not equivalent to ones in the past. Again, this discussion nibbles at certainty, but it does not sway opinion.
And so the great ghost hunt marches on. Gaining ground here, and losing ground there. Most of it is probably a figment of our imaginations. We measure the ease of James’ pathways through the Eastern Conference and wonder whether he could have moved from Finals to Finals so unimpeded in the 1990s, when giants still roamed the earth. We wonder, too, what Jordan would do to these pitiful Raptors and little men in green. It’s probably safe to say he would have slain them with impunity, just as it is probably safe to say LeBron could have shamed Patrick Ewing and wagged his finger at Dikembe Mutombo.
Then again, maybe not. Maybe previous decades would have caught the King napping. Or maybe the Bulls supporting cast would prove wanting in some unforeseen way that dragons in fantasy novels are always missing an armored scale just near the breastplate.
The thing is we talk about these matters because short of placing both players in their primes opposite one another we simply do not know what would happen on a basketball court, so we imagine Jordan’s stare would whittle James down into another Charles Barkley, or that James would loom over Jordan in the same manner he looms over Stephen Curry. Both moments are possible because both moments require nothing more than a belief in photo shops.
The young push against the notion that the past won’t let go of accolades and acronyms. The old hold onto the relevance of an already lost youth. Both these acts reek of desperation to own the present. They also balance on uncertain principles. Thus, we turn to other, possibly more tangible things.
LeBron James has so owned the Eastern Conference for seven years that his only real competition has been the past, which is why even as he prepares to battle a Golden State super team made in his Miami Heat’s own image, the internet’s fiery forges can be found spewing just as many hot takes about his place next to Michael Jordan as his upcoming matchup against Kevin Durant, Steph Curry and Draymond Green.
These furnaces started bellowing smoke sometime during the lukewarm Eastern Conference Finals matchup with the Boston Celtics, when the inevitable Finals matchup between Golden State and Cleveland officially pivoted from high probability to sure thing. The rest of this article is about how a lack of competition in the Eastern Conference Finals invited basketball fans into debating LeBron and Jordan’s legacies.
Cleveland’s matchup against Boston, which Cleveland won by a count of four games to one, featured three pivotal moments for comparing the legacies of LeBron James and Michael Jordan. The first moment occurred in Game 3. The second in Game 4. The third in Game 5. And all three swung the debate back in forth in rapid secession and felt akin to watching a metallic sphere beaten back and forth on a lit up pinball machine.
The first volley sounded as it often does: Jordan wouldn’t have done that. These seven syllables often flap like a buzzard’s wings, and the critics who spoke them gathered after LeBron James went scoreless in Game 3’s fourth quarter against the Celtics. It did not help the King’s case that Boston’s own King in the Fourth, Isaiah Thomas, did not suit up for the game. Later, though, when LeBron’s own teammate Richard Jefferson leaked that LeBron had been battling illness, those oil-feathered sophists were handed a flu-ridden carcass they could contrast with Jordan’s own famous flu game in the 1997 Finals, when His Airness scored 38 points, grabbed 7 rebounds, and dished out 5 assists. However, the two games are not a perfect dichotomy. After all, the Chicago Bulls wanted to avoid falling behind a game to the Utah Jazz, while LeBron’s struggles merely cost Cleveland a clean sweep against a team that was mostly happy to be there.
To suggest LeBron choked on some grand scale in Game 3 is to greatly hyperbolize the moment. His Cleveland Cavaliers still won the series without extending a great deal of effort, and he still managed to surpass Michael Jordan on the all-time playoff scoring list. Move a grain of sand from one side of the scales to the other.
However, this debate about who is the father of all GOATs is never quite done, not when LeBron’s career is not done and the two will never matchup in their primes. Moreover, when the statistics fail to earn a consensus, the conversation turns to comparing aesthetics, eras, and teammates. The LeBron versus Jordan debate at this juncture almost comes across as a scripted choose your own adventure. LeBron does something, and Jordan’s defenders respond either six rings, though or but Jordan would have done it better.
The most iconic image from Michael Jordan’s Flu Game is not a single play he made, although he made many, but that indelible image of him slumped into Scottie Pippen. The photo is striking because of Jordan’s vulnerability. Only a few other times in his career did he appear so human, in the moments orbiting his father’s death and in the bitterness of his Hall of Fame speech. That bitterness, in many ways, was a wall against his vulnerabilities, and Jordan’s supporters often appear to be defending that wall, securing Jordan’s legacy against his own humanity.
However, that image of Jordan and Pippen is also notable for the ease with which Pippen embraces his running mate and, in many ways, the photograph serves as a metonym for their basketball partnership. They were perfect teammates for one another and, as much credit as Jordan receives and deserves, Pippen made all the difference. Before his arrival, Jordan’s Bulls failed to escape the first round.
Such circumstances shouldn’t carry much weight. Failing to make it out of the first round is typical of young teams, and yet that’s exactly why the Jordan faithful are often so quick to point out the failings of other young stars. They do unto Jordan’s challengers what was done unto them. They preach the fallibility of others in order to enhance their own savior’s invincibility. They’re not necessarily wrong in their critiques, but they are often quick to make them and slow to admit alternatives. James has clearly succeeded enough times in the NBA that a bad quarter here and there is nothing more than a minor blip on an otherwise stellar resume.
In the game after James failed to score in the clutch, his teammate, Kyrie Irving, picked up the Cleveland Cavaliers in a game where a mediocre opponent risked evening the series. And, in what is mostly the coincidental sway of life and sport, Irving’s biggest 2017 playoff performance arrived on the heels of fans and writers comparing flu games.
The Cavs trailed the Celtics by ten points at the start of Game 5’s third quarter, and on this night, James was saddled by foul trouble as much as any illness. Then Irving scored 21 points in the third quarter. He would end up with 42 on the night, and the accolades for James’ running mate began pouring in, which meant the comparisons between Irving and Pippen were not far behind either. Perhaps because Pippen orbits in the periphery of any “flu game” reference and Irving is always a quarter away from one of those nights, the measuring of James and Jordan’s greatness via their best teammates was inevitable. The tangent is also an admission that the debate cannot be resolved by discussing two individual players from starkly different eras.
Personal memories ebb with bias. Statistics cut the tide with objectivity, but can be blind to context. Ring counts discount both players’ candidacies for Greatest of All Time. In the end, the fog of basketball is thickly diffuse, and so an individual player becomes only as good or bad as his supporting cast. The result is a tautology where players must win the most rings, but must also do so with the worst supporting cast.
Michael Jordan and LeBron James stand alone because neither has won a title with a dominant big man. Dominant big men are self-defeating, just note the general rankings of Wilt Chamberlain and Shaquille O’Neal. Steph Curry and Kevin Durant can never be considered because their teammates are Draymond Green and Klay Thompson. One need not even mention the fragile nature of a 3-1 lead.
But if Jordan and James are only as good as the difference between Pippen and Irving, then aren’t Pippen and Irving only as good as the differences between Horace Grant and Kevin Love, or Toni Kukoc and J.R. Smith? To determine who is the GOAT between Jordan and James, fans may need to imagine a hypothetical game where each lines up with his worst eleven teammates behind him. Such a game might feature a much sought after matchup between Daffy Duck and Ricky Davis, but it might not inform basketball opinions very well.
Moreover, a journey down this rabbit hole may present basketball fans with a GOAT who not only failed to escape the first round, but didn’t even qualify for the playoffs. Start preparing for contentious debates between Antoine Walker’s tribe and Jim Jackson’s fellowship. Consider the legacies of Don Kojis and Derek Harper. Maybe the GOAT is actually Mike Mitchell or Shareef Abdur-Rahim, each buried in the rubble of 15 and 14 win rosters. What about Dwyane Wade? He is on a very short list of players who has experienced a 15-win season in the time between winning championships.
I kid. Sort of. Mostly I know that greatness is hard to come by and that it does not necessarily obey ironclad rules and qualifications, rather such rules end up warping reality. I also know that such an argument is not very insightful. It does not offer an answer. Instead, it wonders how George Mikan and Fred Carter can both go missing just as easily as the other. One is the centerpiece of a Precambrian ecosystem, and the other scored 20 points per game on a nine win team. Both register as admirable achievements, as do the careers of Jordan and James. It’s been cool to witness both.